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110th Convocation sees first joint ceremony, posthumous degree

Photo courtesy Gustavo Raskosky

By Riya Misra     5/16/23 10:51pm

Rice held its 110th Convocation ceremony on Saturday, May 6 at Rice Stadium. The graduating class of 2023 walked under the Sallyport prior to convening in the stadium. 

This year’s commencement ceremony marked the first year that all graduation proceedings, including the commencement speech, were condensed into one day. It also marked the conferral of Rice’s first-ever posthumous degree, awarded to Kamryn Sanamo, a Martel College senior who died in January from brain cancer. Sanamo’s family attended the graduation ceremony and accepted the degree.

“[Kamryn] had been tremendously excited to complete her degree, and I’m very pleased that the faculty approved the creation of a posthumous degree policy and that we were able to confer her degree today,” President Reginald DesRoches said in his remarks.

Chairman of Rice’s Board of Trustees Robert Ladd opened the ceremony by expressing his gratitude to everyone who has defined Rice: students, families and faculty. He proceeded to reassure the class of 2023 of their readiness for life beyond the hedges.

“You are well prepared, whether you pursue a career in education, music, medicine, architecture, engineering, science, business — I’m almost done — athletics, to name just a few,” Ladd said. “You're the future of this university. You can make a difference in making Rice University even greater.”

Ladd then handed off the microphone to DesRoches for his first commencement speech as Rice’s president. DesRoches began by highlighting the unique connections between him and the class of 2023, who matriculated only two years after DesRoches was hired as Rice’s dean of the George R. Brown School of Engineering.

“You are my very first graduating class. As you were arriving on campus, I, too, was new to Rice as a fairly new dean of the School of Engineering before I became provost, and now president,” DesRoches said. “I have had the opportunity to engage with and meet many of you through various senior events this year, including the senior holiday party. When you have 400 graduating seniors in your home, you can't help but get close, literally and figuratively.”

DesRoches also cited the COVID-19 pandemic and even family ties as key pillars of his connection with the class of 2023.

“I was just starting as provost when the pandemic struck. It occupied a core part of our years at Rice. Together, we persevered and came out of the pandemic stronger and more resilient as individuals and as a university,” DesRoches said. “And third, this is a special class because how often does a first-year president get to hand out a degree to his baby girl?”

DesRoches echoed Ladd’s earlier remarks, encouraging students to pursue growth and chase challenges even after graduating from Rice.

“Trust me when I say you will change the world, just like the Rice alum that came before you,” DesRoches said. “I challenge you to continue to push yourself to try new things. Get outside of your comfort zone, doing things that are exceptionally hard and perhaps uncomfortable. This is when you will grow intellectually and emotionally.”

Gabby Franklin, the outgoing Student Association president, then took to the stage to discuss the relationships she developed with the graduating class throughout her time at Rice.

“You are the last class to experience campus before COVID. The first class to define what the new normal at Rice is,” Franklin, a Brown College junior, said. “Many of you are the first faces we saw at [Orientation] Week, the ones who guided us through some of our most difficult times … I know for me, at least, many of you have done that, and are honestly the best friends I could ever hope to have.

After Franklin, DesRoches welcomed Karine Jean-Pierre, the 2023 commencement speaker, before the official diploma conferral. Jean-Pierre, introduced by DesRoches as White House press secretary, former political analyst, Columbia University graduate and recently voted best dressed at the White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner, opened her commencement speech with a homage to a well-known native Houstonian.

“A little birdie told me that Beyoncé was also considered as commencement speaker,” Jean-Pierre said. “So I'm feeling extra grateful to be here today. It’s some tough competition right there, but I'll try my best to … not disappoint the BeyHive.”

Echoing similar sentiments as the rest of Rice’s administration, Jean-Pierre said that the COVID-19 pandemic shaped a uniquely unstable trajectory for the class of 2023.

“Although every graduation is an achievement, your path has been steeper and more difficult. Your class was just wrapping up your freshman year when COVID emerged and changed our world in an instant,” Jean-Pierre said. “You lived through a moment in history where every day was unprecedented and you now step into a world rife with new challenges and rich in new opportunities.”

The cornerstone of Jean-Pierre’s speech was the idea that hope is action. She cited her parents’ story of fleeing François Duvalier’s dictatorship in Haiti, moving to Martinique, then France and finally the United States to create a more stable life for their children. 

“My parents’ story is proof. It is proof that change is possible. But that story also attests to the fact that change doesn't come to those who merely want it. It comes to those who work because hope is action,” Jean-Pierre said. 

Jean-Pierre concluded her time on stage circling back to the beginning of her speech, repurposing Beyoncé’s words to support the graduating class.

“Getting to this point, graduation day is a validation that even if you fretted about your future or struggled with your past, you've still chosen to move forward — to hope,” Jean-Pierre said. “I’m going to end where I started, with Beyoncé, of course. She said, ‘Don’t try to lessen yourself for the world; let the world catch up to you.’ Class of 2023, don’t ever lessen yourself. Stay hopeful.”

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